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Headache help: 10 tricks to try

Picking a pain reliever

Dietary and lifestyle changes, exercise and relaxation techniques provide adequate relief for many headache sufferers, but if you need pain medication, your best bet is to turn to your doctor: He or she can determine whether one of the three main over-the-counter options—aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen—is right for you or whether you need a prescription medication. Migraines, for example, are usually treated with prescription rather than over-the-counter medications.

If your doctor recommends one of the three main pain relievers, you should be aware of possible side effects listed in the table below. However, if you’re taking the medication as directed, you probably won’t experience any serious side effects at all.

Now that you’ve settled on a type of pain reliever, you still have to choose a brand—in truth, the differences are often negligible. Note that some brands come in different strengths or different shapes that are easier to swallow; whatever your choice, remember to follow label directions carefully.

TypeBrand namesPossible side effects
AspirinBayer, Bufferin, Ecotrin, EmpirinStomach bleeding
Ringing in the ears from overuse
Interference with blood’s ability to clot
Rebound headache
AcetaminophenAnacin-3, Datril, TylenolLiver damage from overuse
Rebound headache
IbuprofenAdvil, Motrin NuprinNausea, stomach pain and bleeding
Water retention
High blood pressure or kidney damage
Ringing in the ears or dizziness

When a headache should be checked out

In rare cases—fewer than one in 10—a headache may be a signal of a more serious disorder. See your healthcare provider if:

  • you have a sudden, severe headache
  • your headache is accompanied by confusion
  • you begin experiencing regular headaches, even though you were previously headache free
  • headaches interfere with your daily routine
  • your headache is associated with fever, eye or ear pain, or a blow to the head
  • you have a headache that’s different from any you’ve experienced before

What triggers your pain

Find out by keeping a headache diary. Jot down the answers to these questions each time you get a headache in the next month.

  1. Did you eat anything shortly before the headache’s onset?
  2. Did any symptoms precede the headache?
  3. Where did the pain begin?
  4. Did the pain come on slowly or suddenly?
  5. Describe the pain. Is it throbbing?
  6. Are you experiencing nausea or vomiting?
  7. Were you under any special stress before the headache occurred?
  8. At what time of day did the headache begin?

Take your headache diary to your healthcare provider. It may offer important clues to what may be triggering your headaches—a major step in preventing the pain.

In the Middle Ages, the Arab surgeon and medical writer Albucasis recommended either of two treatments for severe headaches: applying a hot iron to the site of the pain or inserting a piece of garlic into an incision on the temple! Thankfully, today’s treatments are a lot easier to take, not to mention a great deal more effective. A doctor may recommend a prescription medication to treat migraines, and a number of over-the-counter remedies are available to relieve occasional headaches (see “Picking a Pain Reliever”). Of course, if you have recurring headaches, your goal should be to treat the cause rather than medicate the symptoms instead. Try these suggestions:

1. Reduce stress. Do you tend to keep your anger bottled up? No wonder you’re feeling stressed—and headachy. If confronting the source of your anger is out of the question, try venting your feelings by writing a letter. Make it as vehement as you like. You won’t be mailing it; the idea is to express your emotions. Exercise, massage, meditation and biofeedback are other proven ways to manage stress.

2. Ease muscle tension. You’ll find that managing stress also may relieve sore neck and head muscles, but sometimes soreness and tension are caused by sitting in the same position for an extended period—even if you don’t feel particularly uncomfortable. If you spend most of your day sitting at a computer, for example, schedule a five-minute break at least once every 40 minutes: Take a brief walk or give stiff muscles a mini-workout by tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. Make an effort to maintain good posture.

3. Avoid foods that trigger headaches. If you’ve noticed that indulging in a chocolate bar frequently leaves you with a pounding head, blame it on tyramine, a natural substance linked to headaches. If you think you may be tyramine-sensitive, stay away from aged cheeses, vinegar, organ meats, sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt and yeast extracts—they also contain the substance. Two other nutritional culprits to avoid: nitrites, preservatives found in smoked fish, bologna, pepperoni, bacon, hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami, and canned ham and sausages, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer included in dry-roasted nuts, potato chips, Chinese food, processed or frozen foods, prepared soups and sauces, diet foods, salad dressings and mayonnaise. MSG is also sold as the seasoning “Accent.”

4. Drink plenty of water. It’s the simplest strategy for keeping headaches at bay, since dehydration is a common culprit. To supply your body with all the water it needs to function properly, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. And if you’re exercising on a hot day, traveling by air, fighting a bout of diarrhea or running a fever, you’d do well to boost your intake.

5. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol deals a double whammy when it comes to a pounding head: Besides causing dehydration, many alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine and brandy, contain tyramine.

6. Take a coffee break. Too much caffeine can give you a headache, but so can going without it if your body’s used to getting its daily ration. (That’s why some people get early-morning headaches even before their first cup of coffee!) Try eliminating it from your diet, or cut back significantly, even if that means enduring withdrawal headaches for a few days. Enjoy a cup of cocoa (less than half as much caffeine as brewed coffee) or, better yet, decaffeinated coffee.

7. Don’t go hungry. Let more than five hours go by between meals or snacks and you’ll wreak havoc with blood sugar levels, driving them down and causing blood vessels to dilate or expand—a natural setup for a headache. In fact, researchers have found that not eating for five hours or more can even trigger a migraine.

8. Don’t overuse pain relievers. Ironically, relying on pain relievers can cause a lot more distress than relief, triggering chronic headaches known as analgesic-rebound headaches. In fact, several studies have shown that giving up pain medication can help headache patients recover—although they may have to survive two weeks of daily headaches before that outcome is achieved.

9. Get a good night’s sleep. Bedtime routines are not just for babies. Too little—or too much—sleep can trigger a common, everyday headache, or even bring on a migraine. Try establishing a nighttime ritual by going to sleep and waking up at about the same time each day. It’s not a bad idea to take a warm bath beforehand or drink a cup of herbal tea to help you unwind.

10. Take care of your eyes. Few activities are as relaxing as reading—unless you’re doing it in semidarkness or for hours on end. In that case, you’re making yourself vulnerable to eyestrain, a leading cause of headache. Use common sense when it comes to lighting conditions, take frequent breaks if you’re on a long drive or reading for an extended period, and if you wear glasses or contacts, get regular eye exams to make sure your prescription is up to date.

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